It is a sign of the times that a visit from the US Secretary of State to India generates such little excitement among the media or the Establishment. Platitudes are expressed but the interaction is single-dimensional and transactional. “What can you give us and what do you want?” That it is an interaction between the world’s biggest democracy and the world’s most powerful does not seem to figure anywhere in the background. This does not just have to do with Donald Trump’s being President, but also the change in the international environment. The global power equation has shifted from an almost universal acceptance of democratic values to realpolitik. While Trump is consciously trying to disengage the US from global ‘responsibilities’, it also has to do with China’s rise as an economic power, and the failure of democratic movements in Russia, the Arab countries and Africa.
At too many places in the world, those in power do not feel accountable to their people. Normally, there should be enormous respect for Indian politicians, who have to go through a punishing exercise over several months to obtain a mandate from a demanding electorate. The attitude, instead, is ‘why take all that trouble, when an overnight coup can deliver quicker’. Even the fact that use of the military often leads to bloody insurgencies does not bring about a change in behaviour.
How are most developed democracies responding to this challenge? Mostly by adopting isolationist and protectionist policies in the belief that the ‘uncivilised’ parts of the world can be left to stew in their own juices. This is despite the fact that so many of their multi-national corporations can only function on the basis of a global footprint. The multi-lateral structure is being sought to be renegotiated on unilateral basis. Ironically, ‘internationalism’ has become the rallying cry for closed and totalitarian societies like China.
India is in the middle of it all not just because of the challenges it faces but also due to its geographical position. If it was powerful enough, it could project its strategic vision in every direction – unfortunately it has failed to build an economy that could back this vision. As such, in every interaction, it is more the supplicant. At this crucial time in world history, it required the democracies to cooperate with each other, but they are doing quite the opposite. It is each one for itself. This is not just a challenge for PM Modi, but also an opportunity to forge India’s own support base from this disparate lot. It cannot be more difficult than winning an Indian election if addressed with the same energy.